Belém is a riverside area, home to Lisbon’s finest monuments and museums, some of which, such as the peculiar Belém Tower or the impressive Jerónimos Monastery, are testimony of Portugal’s maritime history.
It was from Belém that the explorer Vasco da Gama set sail in 1497 to a pioneering sea voyage to India, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and reaching Calicut in 1498.
The Belém area is very compact, only about 5 square kilometres / 2 square miles, but there’s plenty to see and do. You can take half a day or easily spend a full day exploring the sights. Pick those that most interest you and see them in any order. Use our suggestions for eats and drinks.
Getting to Belém from central Lisbon is easy. Once there, use the map that we provide below. Two important details to remember when visiting Belém: (1) many monuments and museums in Lisbon close on Monday, and (2) there may be long queues to visit Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery, especially during the summer peak season.
1. Belém Tower
Start your walk on Lisbon’s most iconic monument – the small Belém Tower. If you take tram 15 to Belém, get off at Largo da Princesa – two stops after Mosteiro dos Jerónimos -, and walk 5 minutes towards the River Tejo. Try to go at high tide, when Belém Tower is at its best.
Built in the sixteenth century to guard the entrance to the harbour, Belém Tower is one of the city’s architectural wonders, and a UNESCO-listed monument. It was used as a State prison for several centuries, and today is a symbol of the Portuguese capital.
From the tower, walk on the River Tejo’s edge towards Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), a caravel-shaped building. On your way, stop at the small Popular Art Museum, visit its main collection, or check if there are interesting temporary exhibitions.
Walk a few steps and soon you’ll be facing the 55 metre-high Monument to the Discoveries. From the top, get 360-degree panoramic views and admire the 50-metre diameter mosaic of a wind rose.
The monument was built in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, responsible for turning Portugal into the leading maritime nation in Europe in the fifteenth century.
Walk across the road by an underground passageway to visit CCB, a large modern complex divided into three main spaces: the meeting centre, the concert hall and Berardo Museum (free on Saturday all day), with an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art from the 1960s to the present. Browse this stunning collection and then relax in the cafés which offer great views of the surroundings.
Just behind CCB, to the left of Jerónimos Monastery, is Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium. It will take you to distant galaxies. If you have kids, the one-hour experience is interesting as it explains the very basics of astronomy, although some may find it outdated technologically speaking (at least at the time of writing).
6. Navy Museum
Getting out of the Planetarium, Lisbon’s Navy Museum is to your left. Housed on the west wing of Jerónimos Monastery, this is the place to learn about the Portuguese maritime explorations through models of ships, naval uniforms and artefacts, including charts, maps and other navigation instruments. Check out the section devoted to the history of Portuguese fishery, including a room about the Newfoundland “Cod Campaigns” during the twentieth century.
Walk around the building, and finally admire Belém’s ex-libris, a UNESCO-listed monastery commissioned by King Dom Manuel I, the Portuguese monarch at the time of Vasco da Gama’s pioneering sea voyage to India. Pay attention to the monastery’s portals, especially the South Portal, with Our Lady of Belém with the Child and the statues of forty religious figures. Visit the Church of Santa Maria (free), and the cloister.
If you like tropical gardens or want to relax and get away from the crowds, it’s only €4 to go through this one. Find it to your right when you’re facing Jerónimos Monastery. The garden displays about 600 varieties of plants, mostly tropical and subtropical species. There is a small café on site.
Walk back to the crowds on Rua de Belém, and sample the original pastel de nata, the famous custard tart at Pastéis de Belém. The place sells over 20,000 of these tarts daily. Order one, or a box of six, either at the counter or seated in the back room (if you are lucky enough to get an empty table). Usually sprinkled with canela (cinnamon), the tart is often accompanied with a bica, a strong espresso coffee.
10. Coach Museum
Continue walking on Rua de Belém till you reach the Coach Museum, a minimalist building that has one of the world’s largest collections of beautifully painted carriages dating from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Visit inside before your next and final stop in this walking tour.
Go across the footbridge that goes over the railway tracks. Turn left and walk a few minutes on the River Tejo’s edge. You should soon reach MAAT (the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) and Tejo Power Station. The area is beautiful to take photos, offering views of the 25 de Abril suspension bridge and across the river.
MAAT deals with contemporary art. There’s an exhibition space underneath the undulating pedestrian roof from where visitors can enjoy panoramic views.
Next door, Tejo Power Station is one of Portugal’s most prominent examples of industrial architecture from the beginning of the twentieth century. In the basement of the old power station, there’s another museum telling the history of the plant through furnaces, boilers and electrical generating equipment, as well audio visual and interactive presentations.